Euro 2012 offers pure treat for football fans
KIEV, Ukraine (AP) - Forget the World Cup for now. Many soccer purists get their quadrennial international kicks from the European Championship.
Ahead of Friday's draw in Kiev, Euro 2012 promises plenty of memorable matchups, as the strongest possible lineup according to the UEFA rankings have qualified to play in Poland and Ukraine.
Even before the draw for 16-team tournament is held Friday, it's safe to assume that the showcase for soccer's strongest continent will live up to its tradition of delivering high-quality matches over three intense weeks.
Even FIFA President Sepp Blatter said he saw too many dull group-stage games last year at the monthlong, 32-team World Cup, which gave Europe only 13 places.
"It's definitely better than the World Cup,'' soccer analyst and author Simon Kuper told The Associated Press. "There are far fewer weaker teams here.''
England coach Fabio Capello agrees.
"At this moment (the European Championship) is tougher than the World Cup,'' said Capello, whose team was ousted by Germany in the round of 16 in South Africa. "The teams that finished first, second and third in the World Cup came from Europe.''
That trio - world and European champion Spain, the Netherlands and Germany - still head FIFA's world rankings, with only South American champion Uruguay challenging the balance of power.
Kuper offers a simple explanation.
"The most technically advanced football is played here,'' the Paris-based writer of "Soccernomics'' said in a telephone interview. "Argentina and Brazil produce better individual players still, but they don't produce better teams. We seem to be tactically and physically better.''
The trend toward European domination started in 1970, after Brazil peaked in its Pele-inspired World Cup win, Kuper suggested.
It took until Euro '96 for UEFA's event to start to rival the World Cup for status and popularity. Then, the soccer heartland of England hosted a tournament that doubled in size to a 16-team format.
"It got a lot of hype and also you get the former Yugoslav and Soviet bloc teams competing,'' Kuper explained.
Talented teams from newly independent Czech Republic and Croatia rode a wave of national pride, and gave European soccer a fresh feel.
"You get the excitement when a country plays its first tournament,'' Kuper said, pointing to Slovenia (2000) and Latvia (2004), who also reached a Euro before a World Cup.
Kevin Miles, an English member of the Football Supporters Europe network, suggested visiting fans also get a better deal at the Euros: a bigger share of ticket allocations, cheaper prices, and mobile "embassies'' giving free and practical information in host cities.
"UEFA, as an organizer, is much more in tune with the requirements of fans and how to deal with them,'' Miles said. "FIFA can learn a lot from UEFA about how to treat fans.''
UEFA also scores well because its signature event is relatively scandal-free, on the field and when choosing host nations, according to Kuper.
"There seems to have been less things going wrong than with World Cups,'' he said.
The Euros have proved as attractive to broadcasters and sponsors as FIFA's money-spinner.
UEFA earned then $2 billion from the 31-match Euro 2008 hosted by Austria and Switzerland. The 64-match 2010 World Cup banked $3.65 billion for FIFA.
Still, many commentators believe UEFA has fussed with a winning formula by expanding Euro 2016 in France to include 24 of Europe's 53 countries.
The six-group format will likely offer fewer must-see matchups, and reward defensive play with a place in the last-16 knockout phase.
"By definition, it will be diluted,'' Kuper said. "These lesser teams defend because that is the easiest thing to learn.''
All the more reason, perhaps, to savor the potential purity of Euro 2012.
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